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The Death of the Meeting: I Blame Technology

It was in a meeting the other day that I finally realised that I am getting old.  As I made my weary way home, I mused on this sudden insight and found myself reminiscing about the old days, when meetings were meetings, and not a collection of people gathered in a room devoting over 50% of their time to a call received on their mobile phone, or a message received on their Blackberry, or going through their inbox (and answering some of the emails) on a laptop they had brought in for the purpose, and I found myself wondering how we had got to this sad state of affairs.

Call me old fashioned, but I was brought up to be told that, when you are in a meeting, or a meaningful conversation with someone, a telephone call is an unnecessary intrusion to be ignored.  These days,  it seems that everyone else in the room is to be ignored if a communication comes in on one of these devices.  How is that productive, to say nothing about the levels of respect for others in the room.  It's some time ago now, but I recall one member of a meeting asking a question, then as they were being responded to, pulling out their blackberry to read a message they had received - and then starting to type in a response.  I was just glad it wasn't me that was replying to their question in the meeting, as I think I would have got up and left (or worse).

Gone are the days when everyone in the room was effectively sealed off, so everyone was fully attentive.  Meetings are now so much longer and less productive, completely because people allow distractions.  In the early days of the mobile phone, a meeting would start with a request for all phones to be turned off - and anyone who didn't and whose phone rang was given killer stares by everyone else.  In this meeting the other day, I found myself an island of incommunicado in a sea of distractions and, to be honest, I felt quite affronted and more than a little sad that the rest of the attendees couldn't find it in themselves to provide everyone else in the room with their undivided attention for a while.

The mobile/Blackberry/Laptop are obviously good things in many respects, especially for business, but here is one area that, for me, has taken us backwards.  Maybe it's my age, but I also think that their intrusion into meetings has also caused a serious reduction in the effectiveness of meetings, and a general decline in standards of respect for colleagues at such gatherings.  Companies should get a grip of this and ban the use of such devices in meetings.

Or am I the only one to think this? 


Comments: (3)

Steve Dance
Steve Dance - RiskCentric - Cambridge 25 June, 2010, 14:46Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Couldn't agree more and I think the issue is even more insidous.  Have you noticed that while most transactions (i.e. credit card purchases, inter-bank payments etc.,) take seconds, just about everything else seems to take longer than ever. It's gettting more and more difficult to get anything done. I blame it on this "interruption culture" that Roger outlines. We now seem to live in an environment where  the latest interruption whether it's a sms, email, telephone call etc. is where our attention is, regardless of its priority and/or importance.  Technology, in many respects, has undermined our ability to focus and concentrate.

(I've a sneaking suspicion Roger and I are of the same generation!!)

Nick Green
Nick Green - ISD Consultants - Northampton 26 June, 2010, 12:15Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

I believe I too am of a certain age. When I go into a meeting I automatically turn off my phone out of courtesy to my clients. I have a smart phone but emails aren't automatically collected I do it manually when I'm ready and have the time to review them. I wonder how many poor or bad decisions have been made because of the Crackberry revolution. An email received has to be read and answered immediately with no pause for consideration, to mull over the contents before responding and all this at any time of the day or night. Guys they do have off buttons you know! So of this comes down to self discipline at seven o'clock at home with the kids you are not at work, you are paid 9 ‘till 5 (well give or take unless you have an "on call" job). If your boss says "I sent you an email at seven last night - why didn't you answer" have the strength to say "Oh did you! I was at home reading to my kids at seven." It has become the expectation that staff are available almost 24 / 7 and the time has come for people to fight back and just stop responding to the "electronic leash" out of office hours - you're not being paid so stop working! Companies go on about "work life balance" so they should not expect people to work out of hours.

Back in the day when I started work (in the communications industry) I travelled round as a maintenance engineer and rang control at the end of each job for the next one. Then I got a pager (those that don't know what a pager is - enough said I'm old), if I was needed urgently for a higher priority job that the one I was going to, and when paged I found a phone box! The in my next company I actually got to use the office mobile if I was out of the office but coverage wasn't great and there still wasn't the immediacy that's expected today. The point is Business Still Functioned and I would agree in many respects more efficiently because we weren't swamped with useless information. Today people get asked a question and Reply All immediately and C.C. in loads of other people who chip in their two peneth and Reply All. My answer to those who ask why I've not responded or done anything about "X" is "If by sending me a courtesy copy you thought I was going to do anything - you were wrong. If you want me to do anything send the message to me or better still Speak to me."

I think we need to start a counter revolution to restore some old time discipline to meetings. If it's your meeting ask people to turn off their phones and blackberries or put them in the middle of the table out of reach and if they reach for it ask what the problem is. If it's not your meeting and you're speaking and people start texting etc. stop, stare at them and when they look up be rude "Have you finished? Because that was obviously vastly more important than what anyone in this meeting has to say."

The young know no better it's down to us old guys to teach them there is a better way. Sorry rant over - but you know we're right.


John Dring
John Dring - Intel Network Services - Swindon 26 June, 2010, 22:12Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

(the 'add comment' button disappeared on this blog for me, as did any comment Nick submitted.  Maybe this one will clear it up).

Anyway, I recall this same observation last year (maybe from Bo Harald?), and I recall commenting.  Hopefully I am saying the same thing!  The overall tone being that it is indeed a fact of modern 'business etiquette' to allow this behaviour, and its a result of becoming reactive and email being treated like IM.  Our management and customers expect near instant responses and the fact you are in a meeting is rarely acceptable. 

Of course, the way to control it is for the meeting owner to lay down the terms of the meeting at the outset.  Weak meeting management is as much to blame as poor manners.  Lets face it, there are plenty of meetings where the incoming communique is actually more important, and that's why the behaviour was allowed in the first place.  Admittedly, the interruptions now are often more mundane, so it does need new meeting management techniques, clarifying what is permitted and even providing timed 'coffee'-breaks to allow the addiction to be sated.  The Blackberry is particularly tempting.

At the end of the day, the genie is out of the bottle and we have to live and deal with it.  There are upsides too.

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